The fight for $15 is good for our economy

W.J. Rideout III

For over two years, protests by many thousands of low-wage workers from Michigan and across the country have been calling for a $15 an hour minimum wage.

They argue no person working full-time or close to it should be living in poverty. Given the rising cost of living and the increase in economic inequality — with wealthy fast-food companies making billions in profits and paying their CEOs more than 1,000 times what front-line workers make — it does not seem like too much to ask.

Their persistence is beginning to pay off. The governors of New York and California have announced they will increase their minimum wage to $15 an hour over the next few years. In Michigan a smaller but still significant increase in the minimum wage is happening.

To keep this momentum going thousands of low-wage workers once again held protests last week across Michigan. The six-city action was to call attention to how a corporate strategy of avoiding taxes and underpaying workers hurts us all because it’s the ordinary taxpayers who then have to make ends meet.

For example, taxpayers cover some $251 million in public assistance to workers for companies like McDonald’s that do not pay a livable wage. That money could otherwise be spent, for example, on hiring hundreds more police officers in Detroit or demolishing thousands of abandoned buildings.

Big businesses are seething at the spotlight these workers have shone on their labor practices. But the public owes these citizens a debt of gratitude for the way they have courageously exposed how these multinational corporations are ripping off American taxpayers and exploiting their employees at the same time.

Don’t be deceived or intimidated by their high-powered lobbyists, allies in the state and federal legislatures, and corporate media now engaged in an all-out campaign to mislead the public about the impact of a living wage.

The most common myth being perpetrated at the moment is that increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour is harmful to business and will lead to layoffs plus increased costs to consumers.

The U.S. Department of Labor points out that such talk is plainly untrue. It notes that higher wages put more money in the paychecks of millions of poor workers who spend it, thus boosting the city, state and federal economies and creating more jobs. And academic research has shown that higher wages sharply reduce employee turnover, which can reduce business costs.

Over the past 78 years the federal minimum wage has been increased 22 times. Along with it, real GDP per capita has steadily increased.

Increases in the minimum wage have had little or no negative effect on the employment of minimum-wage workers, even during times of weakness in the labor market.

The fact is the biggest threat to our economy is not a fairly paid worker, but a hopelessly impoverished one. Combating poverty by providing a living wage is not only morally right, it makes economic sense.

W.J. Rideout III is pastor of All God’s People Church in Detroit and a leader in Detroit 15.